I Shutter to Think
...in which Ashley feels prepared for a life on lockdown
When I wrote this piece last year, we had no idea we'd still be avoiding the general public for so long. But I stand by the sentiment expressed here, having, if anything, grown even more enraptured by the siren song of pure isolation.
We weren’t going to Disney World, that’s for sure. We weren’t going to Hersheypark, Mt. Rushmore, Graceland, or that weird Flintstones village in South Dakota. We weren’t even going to the nearest Stuckey’s. There would be no road tripping. My father was agoraphobic, and travel was considered too dangerous or, at the very least, upsetting to the nervous system. There would be strange parking lots he had never negotiated before and unfamiliar financial rituals with people he didn’t recognize from church. There could be accents unfamiliar, accidental detours into the “bad part of town,” and many disorienting decisions requiring road maps and travel guides.
Better to spend one’s childhood, my father reasoned, in the comparative safety of one’s own living room, free from unsavory entertainments or life-threatening carnival rides. Family trips were out of the question, and going outside at all was routinely frowned upon. My father’s response to any request to go to the movies, spend the night with a friend, or browse the comic books at the corner store was to ask if the trip was “necessary.” My siblings and I became quite adept at propagandizing the importance of life experience and social interaction, but we lost most of these battles. In short, my father was a devout dud.
You could argue his intentions were good. He wanted us all safe at home, under his watchful eye, quietly reading or coloring, doing nothing that could endanger our fragile skulls or delicate immune systems. If we were home, and he could quell any emotional disturbance or rambunctious roughhousing, we could all live in peace and tranquility while the outside world burned with danger. So it was no surprise that my father excelled and felt most content during weather emergencies.
Growing up in a coastal town, I felt as if we had a hurricane every two weeks or so. Generally, it resulted only in broken tree limbs and power outages for a day or two, but sometimes the damage was far more extensive and the disruption of normal services more prolonged. Nothing could have made my father happier. A power outage meant we were more likely to gather in the same room, huddled around the same makeshift light source, and nasty weather meant we could not venture outside. Disney World was probably a smoldering ruin. Thank God we were safe at home.
As I grew into a bitter teenager, of course I devoted all my youthful ambition to being nothing like my father. I set my sights on a life of Kerouacian rootlessness, of wanderlust and mad kicks. I would ride the rails through a rambling series of vision quests with no goal and no concept of tomorrow, possibly becoming an indie rock legend or influential performance artist, travel schedule permitting. I certainly wasn’t going to sit in my recliner for the rest of my life, dozing off to the Weather Channel, having never seen Rock City or Shamu.
Yet today, in the midst of a global pandemic which has forced everyone to quarantine themselves indoors for an unspecified period, I find my life is not much different than it was before Covid-19 closed all the Burger Kings. Not only is this period of extreme indoorsmanship eerily similar to my daily life for the past thirty years or so, but like my father in the post-hurricane darkness, I find myself feeling smugly vindicated in my sedentary lifestyle choice. While all the other fools were out there developing dependencies on external stimulation, I was preparing for this moment, regularly exercising my shunning techniques for decades. The stark reality, as it is for most men, is that I did become my father. But when the call of duty demands the nations of the world stay quietly indoors, the John Holts of the world go Rambo.
It’s passé by now to say that introverts are best equipped to deal with mandatory isolation. We’ve all read the smarmy memes of cat ladies and bookworms gloating over their expert wallflowering in this time of hibernation. The party people court death with their Spring Break group hooting and shared beer funnels. The overachievers can’t contain the urge to shake hands and spew their charm at social gatherings. The travel buffs strain to mingle with exotic tribes and sample the foodstuffs of health code violators in foreign lands. Understandably, these people resist an official decree to siddown and shaddup.
But the introvert has podcasts and craft projects locked and loaded, and rather than recoiling at the prospect of solitary confinement, positively swoons when imagining it. Keeping a safe distance from the public is an instinct that drove we sensitives to a life of introversion in the first place. People are exhausting, confrontational go-getters, disturbing the peace with their sportswear and binge-watch recommendations. If I needed a reminder of the social contract’s obsolescence, it came with this afternoon’s trip to the grocery store for quarantine supplies (Hostess cupcakes) as the grease-stain-covered bubba in line behind me bellowed into his Bluetooth while stuffing deviled eggs from his cart into his jabbering squawk hole. You don’t have to tell me twice to go home and stay home.
At this stage of my life, I’m at peace with my introverted nature, daddy issues be damned. I no longer admonish myself for failing to become a take-charge trendsetter with Toastmasters magnetism. I no longer envy the self-made debutantes with their cheering throngs and signature lines of kitchenware. I am happily in seclusion and quite content with the notion of a plague-induced End Times. Then again, this is easy to say considering I’m not really solitary. I’m sharing the isolation with my wife. And having cohabitated in one-room apartments, guest couches, and sleeper cars, Heike and I not only feel comfortable incubating in small spaces for long periods, we actually find ourselves coveting tiny houses and classic camper trailers, thrilled at the prospect of further downsizing and sequestering.
Whatever psychological glitch has caused this desire to live in a shoebox, the tendency was made clear to me one revelatory evening in my discombobulated teens. And as revelations often do, it came as a result of a particularly intense LSD experience. Locked in a cheap motel room, finding myself confused and agitated by the blotter acid I’d ingested, I became annoyed by the kaleidoscopic patterns and inter-dimensional portals which seemed to reach into an infinite universe of infinite conundrums. I was also annoyed by Marvin Cox, my trip partner for the duration, who wouldn’t shut up about the Thundercats. So, motivated by a strong urge to seclude myself in the smallest place possible, yet worried that total darkness would only produce more cosmic visions, I plugged a table lamp into a nearby outlet and brought it with me into a small closet. I thought this would give me a smaller place to understand, a more limited world which I could calmly reason with and define. It didn’t work. The lamp illuminated the faux-stucco wallpaper inside, opening up new horizons of candy-colored infinity, a gigantic universe of confusion and chaos.
Like a universe of unstoppable insanity, where someone as stupid as Kanye West or Honey Boo Boo might become president of the United States. A universe where some killer, flu-like virus might suddenly strike the whole human species, forcing us all to leave our jobs, hoard Cheez Whiz, and contemplate the end of everything. You might prefer to ponder such a universe in a cozy corner by yourself, to think inside the box, but that universe is never far enough away to study objectively. It seeps in, right through the walls and into your troubled mind.
Maybe this was my father’s problem, the source of his isolating anxiety. Even glued to his favorite chair, absorbing soothing elevator music and maintaining a perpetual state of nap, the worries were still infecting his system. But staying inside, sacrificing life to the God of Safety, still seemed like the only reasonable choice. And now his point of view, and mine, seem justified. The world outside is full of irritation and potential hazard. It will jangle your nerves just to think about it. Coming into contact with those people out there could infect you, maybe with a communicable disease, maybe with revolting popular trends, bad political ideologies, or Amway. Social distancing is the only lifestyle choice that makes sense.
Mind you, I’m not actually agoraphobic like my father. Mine is not a fear of the outside world so much a devout loathing. But either way, times like these make me grateful I was conditioned to spend my days indoors, reading, drawing, writing, brooding over exaggerated slights from decades past, and other quiet hobbies. I have no burning desire to commune with fellow Styx fans, high-five bros on the basketball court, or get anything resembling fresh air. I am committed to the quarantine, ready and able to sit quietly in keeping with my vacationless upbringing. And for this I can thank my father, a man who lived to avoid.
Still, I’m not without my resentments. Yes, my dad’s fear of leaving the house was an inspiration. But if he really wanted to keep me safe during a global pandemic, why didn’t he encourage me to become a germophobe?